Welcome to the first of my seven-issue series on Craft, in which I’ll dive into the way I approach writing fiction, specifically novels.
The opinions I’m sharing in these essays are not rules for writing, but ideas for how you might think about writing. I’m not going to tell you to kill your darlings or never use prologues. (I’ll admit it: I LOVE PROLOGUES.) I am going to share with you strategies for writing that I’ve learned through personal experience. If they resonate with you, I encourage you to try the tips I suggest. And if you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment or reply to this newsletter in your email. Thanks for reading!
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Begin before the beginning
Most discussion of writing craft begins with the actual writing, but I believe it’s important to take a step back and look at the person who will write those words: you.
Who are you as a writer? What is your writer identity?
Many writers think of themselves as “plotters” (writers who enjoy planning their books in advance) or “pantsers” (writers who like to fly by the seat of their pants). But my definition of identity is not about how you set down words in the form of a story. It’s not about your writing process.
Nor is it about the category or genre of novel you write. You may write young adult novels, or mysteries, or science fiction, but YA, mystery, or science fiction are not your identity. For example, when people look at my body of work, they can see that I write young adult books. This is true, but when I think of who I am as a writer, it’s not “young adult author.” That’s simply the way other people categorize me.
Finally, writers are often linked with adjectives such as “bestselling” or “critically acclaimed.” It’s tempting to identify with these adjectives, but remember that they’re external markers that are unrelated to your writer identity. Whether or not your book becomes a bestseller or critically acclaimed has nothing to do with who you are as a writer.
So if it’s not about process, genre, or external markers like “bestselling,” what do I mean by identity?
Your identity as a writer is an internal compass that leads you to stories that only you can write.
The word identity is admittedly imperfect. You might think a better term for this would be mission statement or vision or voice — or even compass. But I wanted to emphasize that your writer identity is internal and unique. It is only for you; it is not a brand. It is your personal connection to why you write.
Once you’ve discovered what your writer identity is, you’ll be much better equipped to make decisions about what to write and how to write it.
How to find your writer identity
I strongly believe that you should write what you want to read. That means in order to find your writer identity, you need to think about what you most love to read.
Simple, right? On the one hand, yes. On the other hand, it’s complicated because we have so many judgements about which books are worthy of our love.
When I was growing up, I loved a variety of books, from Nancy Drew to Anne of Green Gables to the Dragonlance fantasy novels to Lois Duncan’s gothic-tinged suspense. I was drawn to Robin McKinley’s novels about heroic young women, as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s quieter books about aspiring writer Vicky Austin. I loved Little Women, which was considered a “classic,” but I didn’t connect with most of the books assigned in high school like The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises.
One of my favorite high school English teachers allowed us to choose the books we wanted to read for class—but only up to a point. We were allowed a certain number of books she described as “schlock,” and the rest had to be teacher-approved classics. The dictionary definition of schlock is “cheap or inferior goods or material; trash.” When my English teacher described books as schlock (yes, she actually used this word repeatedly), she was referring to popular fiction: science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, romances.
I loved this teacher; she was such a supporter of my extracurricular writing, and she taught me how to love Shakespeare and Jane Austen. But she also denigrated the popular fiction I loved. At one point she told me I needed to stop reading popular fiction; I had to read a classic. So I found a workaround. I brought in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and pitched her on how significant the book was. She allowed me—with a wry smile I remember to this day—to read it for class.
This wasn’t the first time I encountered this kind of judgement about my reading choices, and it wasn’t the last. I’m sure you’re very familiar with this kind of judgement too. Anyone who reads knows that certain kinds of books are considered more worthy (literary fiction, “serious” books), while other kinds of books are considered less worthy (genre fiction, “fun” books).
I couldn’t help but internalize this kind of reading value scale, and because I wanted to be a writer, this led to a real conflict inside me. I wanted to write things that were worthy, but so much of what I loved to read was judged to be unworthy.
In retrospect, I can see that this conflict over what I loved versus what I thought I was supposed to love was expressed in so many areas of my life, including my identity as a lesbian. For a long time I tried to be what everyone told me I should be—straight. But although the truth can be suppressed, it doesn’t change. And eventually, the truth will come out.
The truth was that I was (and am) a lesbian. The truth was that I loved (and still love) reading popular fiction—and that’s what I wanted to write. These discoveries, for me, happened in tandem. It was not an easy process. I had to untangle myself from so many externally imposed judgements and expectations. I did that partly through writing Ash, where I told myself a story I’d always wanted to read.
When I wrote Ash, I didn’t know what my writer identity was—not yet. I didn’t consciously start thinking about that until somewhere around my third published novel, so if you’ve never thought about it until now, that’s okay! Before I started thinking about it consciously, I let my instincts guide me to the stories I wanted to tell, and that worked, more or less.
During that time, I was experimenting. I was playing. These were key experiences that have come to inform my identity as a writer, and I suspect that as time passes and I have more experiences, my identity will evolve.
But there came a time when I began to need to know what my writer identity was in order to keep writing. I had reached a point where I had countless story ideas, and they went in many different directions. There was no way I could write all those ideas, so I had to choose which ones I would spend years working on. I needed some kind of guide—an internal compass.
That’s when I began to think about what I’d already written and what I wanted to write in the future. I thought about the similarities across these ideas, and which ones most excited me. I wrote about it in my writing journal, and I thought about it as I worked on my novels in progress.
This is what I’ve discovered about my writer identity: I want to tell big-picture stories about love, death, and cosmic meaning.
This is my own internal compass. It has nothing to do with what sells on the market or how other people might categorize my books. Some things that I write might not fit this identity, and that’s okay. As a working writer, I know that sometimes you have to write things for a paycheck, and my writer identity can co-exist with real life demands. It’s a compass, not a box to contain myself in.
Other writers’ identities might sound like this:
I want to tell intimate stories about personal transformation.
I want to tell empowering stories about fighting for justice.
I want to tell inspiring stories about the meaning of love.
Your writer identity doesn’t need to be summarized in one sentence beginning with “I want.” You might envision it as a Venn diagram with intersecting themes, or as a collage of images that represent your deepest interests. But using the phrase “I want” can be helpful because it focuses on your desire and frames it as something to aim for, rather than a fixed constant. Sometimes you need to take detours, but you can always consult your compass and find the way to your true north: your writer identity.
If this concept of identity speaks to you, I suggest you spend some time thinking about what your writer identity is. You might look at your bookshelves or your Goodreads list and see which books you loved the most. Ask yourself a few questions: Why did you love this book or that one? How did it make you feel? It may be helpful to freewrite about this or to brainstorm by hand on paper. And remember: This isn’t a one-and-done exercise. This is a continuing process of discovery that will change as you change.
Courageous Creativity: Advice and Encouragement for the Creative Life by Sara Zarr
Coming from critically acclaimed (yes!) author Sara Zarr, Courageous Creativity feels like a much-needed pep talk from a wiser, big sister. It’s designed for young people, but as a not-young person, I can assure you I also needed to hear much of the advice in here. Zarr offers “tools not rules” for cultivating creativity in your life, whether that’s about writing or painting or music or crafting, although many of her exercises are based in writing (because she’s a writer!). She writes encouragingly about facing fears, self-doubt, and overcoming procrastination, and gives useful advice on how to make space to play and to refill your creative well. It’s officially out today!
Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, including Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella. Her next novel, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, comes out Jan. 19, 2021. Find out more at her website or follow her on twitter or instagram.